Dostoevsky The Short Fiction
The Parallel of Alexandra’s Letter: Analyzing Netochka Nezvanova
In the unfinished novel Netochka Nezvanova, Fyodor Dostoevsky portrays Alexandra’s letter from her former lover S.O. as a parallel for little Netochka and Katya’s relationship/friendship. It is perhaps nclear what a 19th century Russian author intended by this arrangement; nonetheless, this relationship whether romantic or not is seen similar to the relationship of Alexandra and her former lover S.O. These similarities are seen in three ways; first by the fact that both S.O. and Netochkas first reaction to the other was recognizing their beauty, then the fact that both were lower class compared to the two sisters (Alexandra and Katya), by the fact both relationships end by other people and lastly by Netochkas response to it all, the only one that knows fully their two stories.
In the early passages of Alexandras ‘love letter,’ S.O. writes as he is exclaiming his love to Alexandra but also he is wishing her goodbye because others force them apart. S.O. starts out by saying that in the beginning he did not love Alexandra but rather just thought she was attractive. S.O. speaks of this in his letter by saying to her; “Do you know how I understood you at first? Passion consumed me like fire, flowing like poison through my blood, stirring up thoughts and feelings” (Dostoyevsky 141). This initial reaction is similar to Netochkas’ first sight of Katya, though through younger terms and phrases in which Netochka first describes her love’s face as; “Try to imagine a face of idyllic charm and stunning, dazzling beauty; one of those before which you stop, transfixed in sweet confusion, trembling with delight; a face that makes you grateful for its existence, for allowing your eyes to fall upon it, for passing you by” (Dostoyevsky 81). This first infatuation with merely her outer image only is exactly what S.O. was describing on how he felt towards Alexandra.
Secondly, S.O. is constantly speaking of his inferiority to Alexandra. Speaking to her as referring to when he did not actually love her but simply found her beautiful. He tells her how it can never work because of her superiority and even if she managed to ‘bring him to her level’ no one would ever allow it because “They do not know, They cannot understand, They are incapable of it” (Dostoyevsky 143). Likewise with Netochka and Katya; the former was brought in as a poor orphan with literally nothing to her name and because of her lower rank the people surrounding them would not allow it (other than prince X of course who is an exception). In both relationships we see this push by everyone else with nothing but love between each other. In the end S.O. is forced to leave Alexandra because of everyone else and similarly Katya is forced to leave Netochka because of others.
Netochka clearly recognizes this similarity between their two stories in that she takes the letter so personally; “I felt as if something had been resolved within me, and that the old sadness had left my heart and something new was taking its place—something over which I still knew not whether to grieve or rejoice” (Dostoyevsky 144). Netochka clearly recognizes these sad similarities and is trying to figure out why she feels the way she does. Which is while in the end before Alexandra dies, Netochka recognizes more the Petyr her pain and tries her hardest from stopping him from bringing it up. The two stories collide in an amazing twist in which both of Prince X’s daughters go into ‘forbidden’ loves in which they are both forcibly separated from their lover. This might be attributed to Prince X great fatherhood in which he taught both his daughters true love and not to care about their position in society. Because both sisters are the only ones who seem not to care about Netochkas poverty and when Katya is heard to mention it she is quickly rebuked by her father himself. This shows the type of father he was and though neither relationships were successful, the fact that these two rich princesses could fall for ‘commoners’ was impressive in itself.
Therefore, Dostoyevsky does portray Alexandra’s letter from her former lover as a parallel for little Netochka and Katya’s relationship/friendship. This is shown by S.O. and Netochkas similar characters and lives, by the fact that the two princesses were both ‘lowering themselves’, by others forcing them apart and by the reaction Netochka gave to the story and how she took it so personally. All these similarities prove that Dostoyevsky intended this parallel, which might have gone on if Dostoyevsky had finished this novel.
Choice in Dostoevsky’s Dream of a Ridiculous Man
When Albert Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus , he demonstrated the absurdity of human existence in the indifferent universe with the ridiculous task of pushing a rock up a hill an infinite number of times. Every time Sisyphus pushed the rock to the top of the hill, it only rolled back down for him to do it again. This is the very fundamental idea underlying Existentialism. Much like Sisyphus of the ancient myth, humans live a meaningless existence; nothing means anything when all that is certain is death. It is therefore ridiculous to live without such a realization, or otherwise with an illusion of meaning and purpose. Yet humans continue to live and assign importance to their daily activities, even against the fact that death is inevitable. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story The Dream of a Ridiculous Man accounts for the absurdity of human existence portrayed by Albert Camus and demonstrates what it is to be really ridiculous, yet also suggests a solution. We humans must understand that we both have the ability to choose the life we live, and that end results may not matter as much as we assume.
Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote The Dream of a Ridiculous Man from a politically, socially, and spiritually troubled 19th century Russia. Life under the Russian regime is key in Dostoevsky writings, and The Dream of the Ridiculous Man is no exception. The story reflects the suffering and alienation of the Russian society and explores the psychology of the character shaped by the society. Dostoevsky however, provides consolation and hope at the end of the story as he believes there is purity and goodness at the end of suffering and despair (Bourgeois). The story also includes elements of Dostoevsky’s philosophical school of thought, Existentialism. Meaning in life, absurdity, suicide, as well as confronting mortality and the anxiety of choice are fundamental basis in The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. The story is also richly influenced with Orthodox Christianity. Dostoevsky references the bible, creating alternate interpretations of Genesis, portrays the narrator as Adam, later as the Serpent, and then as Jesus, and explores religious concepts such as the Problem of Evil and Fall of Man (Cassedy). These influences play in to the story and at least in part explain or provide the context for the character’s ridiculous existence, suicidal intentions, and eventually the revelation to live and do good by choice.
The narrator of The Dream of a Ridiculous Man admits he is living an absurd existence and finds no evidence of the contrary. He explains that “he has always been ridiculous, and he has known it” (Dostoevsky, pg. 3), not only distinguishing himself from other humans, but also distinguishing humanity from other species. Humans are the only living creatures aware of their ultimate fate, and that knowledge is what makes their existence far more absurd than any other. The narrator’s acknowledgment of this is essential in the Existentialist thought. The narrator also reveals that earlier in his life when he was attending the university, “the more he learned, the more he understood he was ridiculous…in the end, the sciences he studied existed only to prove he was ridiculous” (pg. 3). The narrator does not know exactly when he became ridiculous, but he comes to understand that he has always been ridiculous and it does not matter when he realized it first. As the story continues, he grows ever more indifferent to life, and finds only more evidence of the absurdity of human existence with his friends, neighbors, and strangers.
The conversation between the narrator’s friends that follows only reinforces the narrator’s beliefs. They are arguing for the sake of argument, and are completely detached from the topic they speak of. Their conversation is meaningless and their enthusiasm a pretense as they do not understand the emotions and opinions they profess. When the narrator tells his friends that they do not really care for their argument, they only find his remark amusing. This conversation demonstrates the idea that nothing matters in life, and thus the only passion for doing anything that exists is fake. The narrator realizes that, but he speaks with indifference when he attempts to reproach his friends. The narrator also shows indifference in his apartment building. He says there is shouting and fighting in one of his neighbor’s apartment just behind the wall, but he shows no annoyance or concern. The narrator simply “does not care how much they shout on the other side of the partition or how many of them there are in there: he sits up all night and forgets them so completely that he does not hear the noise anymore” (pg. 6). An encounter with a little girl reveals that the narrator maintains his beliefs. When the little girl asks the narrator for his help, he reasons that the stranger he is asked to help will die nonetheless. Turning his back on humanity, the narrator demonstrates his further indifference and ambivalence to life, his or other. If everything in life is ridiculous then there is no reason he should help the stranger. The narrator essentially finds his existence ridiculous and there is no evidence of the contrary anywhere in his life. There is only absurdity and indifference, and so the narrator decides to commit suicide, but he falls asleep.
The narrator’s dream is a fundamental change in The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. It is a vision or a revelation that teaches the narrator of the true absurdity of human existence, and creates a dramatic change in the narrator’s life. He goes from committing suicide to preaching what he believes is the truth. The dream itself not only puts the paradise that the narrator visits and his world in juxtaposition, but also parallels ultimate good with knowledge of good and evil. The paradise, or the earth before the Fall of Man, is free from all that is evil and shameless; it is a utopia where every resident is innocent and happy. With the narrator’s presence however, the paradise is cursed with the same fate as Eden was on Earth. The narrator corrupts the paradise with knowledge by introducing lies, sexual debauchery, jealousy, murder, factions, nationalism, war, etc. (pg. 19). He brings an end to the perfect happiness and ultimate good of people of the paradise, but at the same time he gives them humanity, knowledge, and choice. The people of the paradise lack the ability to choose their life, and that is no life at all. What the narrator essentially gives them is the most human thing of all, the ability to choose.
The narrator learns that knowledge and the ability to choose is far more meaningful then life itself. The people of the paradise are merely instinctual creatures, doing good, but having no ability to reason or choose to do good. There is no evidence that living a good life is any better than living a bad life or an indifferent life, yet the people of the paradise are exclusive to only that one option, one option among three. There is nothing that can be more ridiculous then to live a good, moral life above any other when in the end the good and the bad will both meet the same fate, and both will be exactly equal. Living a good, moral life is not a necessary element of human existence. The knowledge that there is a choice, and the understanding that all choices are equal is the key to any happiness. The narrator explains that the people of the paradise “would not want to return to the paradise” (pg. 20), and then the narrator himself admits “he loves the earth they have polluted more then the paradise” (pg. 21). Indeed, the knowledge and the ability to choose are higher than any life in paradise. The narrator and the people of the paradise learn that if men do good it should be because they can do good all by themselves, because they can choose to do good by their own conscious understanding. The narrator summarizes this truth when he wakes up; “the chief thing is to love others like yourself, that is the chief thing” (pg. 22). The narrator is a changed man now, not only does he cherish life, but he goes from attempting suicide to a life where he preaches the truth and atones his past mistakes. He finds meaning and purpose, and there is no mention of a God or an afterlife. The narrator learns that “he can be beautiful and happy without losing the power of living on earth” (pg. 22), that is, he is motivated to do good purely by his own choosing, not by the promise of eternal life or a paradise.
Dostoevsky’s The Dream of a Ridiculous Man is a short story that confirms the absurdity of human existence and gives some thought to suicide as a viable response, but at the same time demonstrates that happiness and meaning can be attained in this world if one understands that one should do good by his own conscious choosing. Dostoevsky’s implications however go beyond this. The story is also a comment on Christianity, and in particular Eden or the paradise. The Dream of the Ridiculous Man seems to suggest that a “paradise or an afterlife will never come to be” (pg. 22), because an eternity of unconsciously doing only good is inhuman. Consciousness of life is higher than life, and the paradise is an automatic, robotic life deprived of consciousness. The ability to choose indeed gives life consciousness and perhaps the short life on earth is worth more than an eternity in paradise, as Dostoevsky implies. In the story, Dostoevsky also comments on the evolution of civilization. The paradise in the narrator’s vision seems to take on the same history as that of humanity on earth. First there is a paradise, next is corruption, and then mankind spends the next thousands of years learning how to be happy again. The difference is that when mankind learns the truth, in that they will do good and be happy, they will have arrived at it consciously. This evolution of civilization perhaps only attempts to recapture the goodness and happiness of the paradise, but it also more importantly gains consciousness in the process. Dostoevsky stresses that it is this consciousness, the knowledge, the ability to choose that gives any sense to life.
In Dostoevsky’s conception, humanity has not regressed from paradise, but progressed. God has given us the ability to do good, we have given ourselves the ability to choose to do good. We have come from being unconscious, instinctive and mechanical automatons, to conscious human begins with the capacity not only to be genuinely happy, but also the knowledge of the laws of happiness. We should do good not because it may or may not be rewarded by God who may or may not exist, but because we can do good regardless of God and an afterlife. We are merely human beings on this earth who can only conquer the absurdity of our own existence when we understand that our conscious mind transcends everything.
Bourgeois, Patrick, Lyall. “Dostoevsky and Existentialism.“ Journal of Thought (1980): 29-38. Philosopher’s Index. EBSCO. Web. 5 May 2010.
Cassedy, Steven. “Dostoevsky’s Religion.” Studies in East European Thought (2007): 163-165. Philosopher’s Index. EBSCO. Web.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. Feedbooks. Published: 1877. PDF File.
“The Peasant Marey” as an Unofficial Epilogue to The House of the Dead
“The Peasant Marey”, although written fifteen years after the publication of The House of the Dead, is a short story developed by Fyodor Dostoevsky from the same autobiographical experience: his imprisonment in Siberia. The story has an unnamed narrator, whose style and point-of-view resemble that of Goryanchikov, Dostoevsky’s fictional surrogate in The House of the Dead. The narrator starts the story with a scene from the novel, in which a prisoner named Gazin is beaten violently for his intoxicated aggressiveness (The House of the Dead 1003). Then, he abruptly brings up a childhood reminiscence of being saved by his father’s serf from an imaginary wolf, which leads him to have a sort of “unconscious awakening” unstated in the original novel (Kanzer 83).
Although dubious, it is worth arguing that “The Peasant Marey”, with its inserted “new insight”, is qualified as an unofficial epilogue of The House of the Dead, because it brings up thoughts and sensations that are not in the original fiction but need to be further expressed. An epilogue is, according to Collins Dictionary, “a closing section added to a novel, play, etc., providing further comment, interpretation, or information.” In The House of the Dead, the innate benignity of the peasantry is repeatedly reflected throughout the book, yet this idea is presented so subtly as to be overshadowed by the book’s other, more fully articulated themes — the inefficiency of the penal system and the insurmountable gulf between the peasantry and the gentry. In “The Peasant Marey”, Dostoevsky revisits this overlooked aspect from his previous novel by adding an ideological recollection, and thus adjusts the emphasis of his earlier interpretations. Through such a reflection on human nature and fundamental convictions, Dostoevsky consolidates his ideas contained in The House of the Dead and documents a more complete vision about peasants, prisoners, and Russians in general.
As he first struggles to adapt to a prison life among the peasants, the narrator Goryanchikov states: “I consoled myself with the thought that bad men are to be found everywhere but even among the worst there may be something good” (The House of the Dead 1406). For him, a member of the lower gentry, peasants first seem barbaric and different by nature. Goryanchikov assumes that even the more educated peasants are less civilized and that here “education has nothing whatever to do with moral deterioration” (235). During his first days of imprisonment, Goryanchikov himself is likely to exclaim “je hais ces brigands!” in his mind (“The Peasant Marey” 3). However, with an open mind and an observing nature, Goryanchikov soon abandons his initial biases toward fellow prisoners, and discovers from various details of his life, that “you may meet a bad man anywhere and everywhere” regardless rank and social position (The House of the Dead 5682). For instance, in the story of the prison hospital, Goryanchikov describes a disturbing death scene of a consumptive prisoner, who died without having his iron shackles taken off. Despite the general noisiness of the hospital environment, everyone falls into silent condolence, and one prisoner with named Tchekounoff even ventures to express his discontented towards the sergeant by clenching his teeth, trembling, and murmurs almost involuntarily, “He too had a mother!” (3541). As soon as the body is carried out, everyone begins talking suddenly. Goryanchikov expresses his curiosity about the moral density brings about by the death and about what drove Tchekounoff to make such a risky utterance. But Dostoevsky does not write more about this event in the narrative comments.
Another example of Goryanchikov’s awareness of the inner beauty and naivety of the peasants is when he observes the prisoners put on a Christmas performance. On Christmas Eve, every prisoner contributes to the event in his own way: bringing in spirits, gathering costumes, setting up the stage, and gathering an audience comprising from the officers and villagers. Everyone is serious and preoccupied, “though there was little enough to do” (The House of the Dead 2628). And those without an occupation “bustle about with a business-like air simply because others are genuinely occupied,” to feel accepted into the “bosom of the family” (2617). Those prisoners who binge drink suddenly restrain their previous behaviours, and all prisoners become merry and polite as if celebrating the holiday among family. Goryanchikov describes the performance as talented, with the acting abilities of the inmates, and beautiful in the simplicity and richness with which it presents Russian folk traditions (2979). He also notes that while watching the play, most prisoners laugh and cry like “children, at the age of forty” (3005). But he comments very little on the content of the play or the prisoners’ naïve appreciation of the aesthetic, and neither does he talk much about the festive warmth of the prison environment. Instead, he focuses on the lack of human freedom in the prison schedule and the fact that inmates of the gentry receive better respect among the audiences because they are stereotyped as being more educated (2974). It is worth arguing that when writing the chapter, Dostoevsky would have had stronger emotion towards the waste of human talents under the “dead” system and the estrangement between social classes. However, it is also clear that he felt the benignity of the peasants; these feelings, although not explored in the novel, are examined in “The Peasant Marey”.
Moreover, the idea that humans are essentially equal before God and that there is a lot more to study in the characteristics of the Russian peasants than what was previously recognized by the intelligentsia is brought up in the story of the Holy week. The local villagers allow the convicts to rank with themselves during church services: not a single peasant judges the prisoners before God, and prayers are offered to everyone without discrimination. The prisoners, too, repent sincerely and beg for God’s mercy (House of the Dead 4634). Given this scene of mutual understanding and suffering among the common people, one is allowed to speculate the reason that Russians peasants refer to crime as a “misfortune” and the criminal an “unfortunate” (House of the Dead 1125). However, Dostoevsky does not fully expand upon the topic but rather brings the discussion back to the inhumanity of the judicial punishment and the cruelty of certain officers.
To this end, it is obvious that Dostoevsky’s primary areas of focus in The House of the Dead are the inhumanity and ineffectiveness of the Russian penal system, as well as the insurmountable social gap. Dostoevsky shapes his narration to construct a smooth story arc and to provide a better argumentation for the social issues above. Although Dostoevsky was interested in a complete discussion about the development of human nature and the beauty of the Russian soul, the subject was probably too complicated for him to tackle at the time and required more thought and more life experiences for him to explore in sufficient depth, which Dostoevsky accomplished during his later years. Such a topic also requires greater length to be clearly explained, and this is difficult to do within the frame of The House of the Dead. Moreover, simply from a writer’s perspective, arguing about the peasantry’s nature could have jeopardised the strength of the established argument on the social gap. The narrator Goryanchikov claims that during his stay in prison, he is never able to get close to his fellow convicts from the lower ranks. Although he befriends with many inmates — teaching a Tartar to read, teaching another prisoner some common knowledge, and trading consistently with many others — Goryanchikov is shut out from the inner worlds of his fellow prisoners simply because he is a member of another social rank. The most powerful example of the alienation between the peasantry and the gentry is arguably the protest organized by lower rank prisoners. When Goryanchikov tries to participate in the protest, he is meanly insulted and is finally told by one of the kinder prisoners that they “are here on business of our own” and that Goryanchikov should go to his own people and “got to keep out of it” (5402). With strong examples like this to demonstrate the estrangement of the social classes, it would be very difficult to fit another argument in the narrative that Goryanchikov is able to understand the peasants and to perceive the beauty of their soul. As Robert Jackson states in his critique on the authenticity of “The Peasant Marey”: “how is it possible to have a new view of the convicts, that is, a view of their basic humanity, without the capacity to look into their hearts?” (213).
Thus, at the time of writing The House of the Dead, Dostoevsky naturally emphasized social topics that he felt were most urgent and that he could carry out with the most clarity, efficiency, and creativity. At the same time, when composing “The Peasant Marey”, Dostoevsky was already in his mature writing period. The short story, although brief, “bears the typical Dostoevsky imprint”. Mark Kanzer comments, Fierce convicts and rough peasants with hidden Christlike qualities, complicated emotions, and deep introspection are characteristic of the Dostoevsky novel, but the very brevity of this tale of ‘The Peasant Marey’ enables us to grasp more readily the essential processes of his thought and phantasy. (81) In this story, as in most of his later novels, Dostoevsky is more interested in the profound historical, psychological, and theological roots buried deep under the societal system and are reflected through the behaviors of people within the system. Although Dostoevsky still identifies social problems through the perspective of a Polish gentry, his emphasis lies within a certain “Russian cognition” (Jackson 215). Rather than exposing social injustice through autobiographical experience, he takes a deeper and more nuanced look at peasants, prisoners and the Russian psychology. And the narrator is no longer an observer who obeys the system but also a mediator who elevates himself to a higher mental and spiritual position to regard the system “in an entirely different way” (“The Peasant Marey” 7). Through his recognition of the ideological truth of the world, all the anger and hatred he holds against his fellow convicts vanishes completely. He discovers and properly values the “inner organic form, obraz, or image” under the apparently “repulsive, yet alluvial, filth in Russian life” (Jackson 214). In other words, the kind and genuine “peasant Marey” types of people everywhere among the villagers, prisoners, and even guards represent the potentials of the Russians. By “scrutinizing his past,” “examining closely his interior and outward life,” and emphasizing such “new insights”, Dostoevsky uses “The Peasant Marey” to add breadth and depth to the Siberia experiences depicted in The House of the Dead (The House of the Dead 5932).
“The Peasant Marey” can thus be considered Dostoevsky’s epilogue-like addition to his earlier autobiographical fiction The House of the Dead to further discuss overlooked aspects and form a more comprehensive perspective of the general Russian populace. Dostoevsky examines his previous experiences and enriches them by adding his later thoughts. “The Peasant Marey” shows Dostoevsky’s personal growth as he continues to develop his writings and ferment his ideology on the Russian soul. As Dostoevsky said in a letter to Apollon Maikov in 1868, it is through age that he at last “finds both Christ and the Russian land, the Russian Christ and the Russian God” (Lantz 24).
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The House of the Dead. Translated by David McDuff, J. M. Dent & Sons, 2008. Kindle Edition.
— “The Peasant Marey”. Translated by Kenneth Lantz, Barnes & Noble Classics, 2004. PDF version from Blackmask Online, http://www.blackmask.com. “Epilogue.” Def.1. Collins Dictionary, https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/epilogue.
Jackson, Robert. “The Triple Vision: Dostoevsky’s ‘The Peasant Marey.’” Close Encounters: Essays on Russian Literature, Academic Studies Press, 2013, pp. 211–225.
Kanzer, Mark. “Dostoevsky’s ‘Peasant Marey’.” American Imago, vol. 4, no. 2,1947, pp. 78-88.
Lantz, Kenneth. The Dostoevsky Encyclopedia. Greenwood Press, 2004.
Magical Realism in “Bobok”
In his short story Bobok, Fyodor Dostoevsky provides a perfect example of one of his favorite devices, magical realism, which paints a realist view of the modern world with the addition of magical elements. The idea that a man might lie down in a graveyard and begin to hear voices below—from the bodies buried in the earth—would be entirely implausible if not for the way in which Dostoevsky carries it out. The ridiculous premise of the story is tempered by details which seem plausible, such that the reader need only accept one magical element in order to believe the rest, as opposed to entirely fantastical stories which present so many impossibilities that one cannot take them seriously at all.
The primary characteristic of Dostoevsky’s magical realism is that even the fantastical part of the story is not outlandish. With a good argument, one could be convinced (at least in Dostoevsky’s age) that the human mind still functions for a time after a person has died. After all, if a chicken can live for 18 months without a head, why is it so preposterous to think that the human brain dies at a different pace than the body? Dostoevsky even lays out an explanation of the phenomenon when new bodies arrive in the graveyard and do not understand what is happening. Platon Nikolaevitch, the graveyard’s resident “philosopher, scientist, and Master of Arts,” theorizes that “the body revives” in the grave, where “the remains of life are concentrated, but only in consciousness,” and life goes on by inertia. By his estimate, “everything is concentrated somewhere in consciousness and goes on for two or three months…sometimes even half a year,” at which point the mind also begins to decompose and the “bobok” muttering period begins. This explanation ties back to reasoning Ivan Ivanych mentions after helping to bear the coffin of his distant relation, that corpses weigh so much more than living bodies “due to some sort of inertia,” a justification that he believes to be “nonsense […] in opposition to the laws of mechanics and common sense.” However, though Ivan Ivanych denounces this hypothesis as the product of inadequately-educated people who “venture to solve the problems that require special knowledge,” he can think of no better explanation. Similarly, conscious corpses playing cards seems like a stretch, but the reader (in Dostoevsky’s age without brain scans) has no way of proving that is not the case, especially when the corpses grow silent as soon as Ivan Ivanych’s presence is known.
In Bobok, Dostoevsky also presents a critique on humanity. The characters on whom Ivan Ivanych eavesdrops discovered that there is some sort of life after death, and with this extraordinary information, they simply continue to act as they did when their bodies lived. The varied group underneath Ivan consists of individuals of different social ranks, and this is clear from the mannerisms of those at both ends of the spectrum despite the irrelevance of social status in such a situation. The sniveling lower court councilor Lebeziatnikov always addresses Major-General Pervoyedov as “Your Excellency,” even after the observation that “as we all know, things are different down here” regarding the equality they all share in death (to which His Excellency replies, “But still…”). The superiors expect to be treated as such in spite of extenuating circumstances which should make it less offensive when, for example, privy councilor Tarasevitch wants to be left alone rather than introduced to General Pervoyedov. When Avdotya Ignatyevna expresses that “it is an affliction” to be stuck next to a mere shopkeeper, he astutely responds that she “doesn’t seem to be able to get rid of [her] caprices here.” Dostoevsky shows the pettiness of humans, the upper-class especially, in the characters’ insistence on retaining titles and ranks in a realm without money or social institutions.
The dead pass their free time in much the same fashion as the living: they play cards, gossip, and argue, discussing their peculiar circumstances only when the new arrivals wake up and require an explanation, and even then, are rather blasé about the whole thing. One activity predictably leads to another because without bodies, they must imagine their card games and then it is only too easy to cheat, prompting name-calling and squabbles. The dead bring matters of the living world down below where they do not mean anything and sound ridiculous simply because it is what they are accustomed to talking about; life—if one may call it that—in a graveyard does not present many new conversation topics. When Avdotya Ignatyevna berates the shopkeeper, he fires back by sharing that there is a bill against her at the shop, at which point she is more than willing to drop the whole matter of past activities because “to try and recover debts here is too stupid.” Then later, when one of the new arrivals wakes up and says he had a complication to do with his chest, Lebeziatnikov and the general get into an argument about which doctor he should have seen and why, as if it makes any difference now. Ivan Ivanych laughs at the dead because he expected them to be more dignified or perhaps enlightened and is quite mistaken, which leads him to think, “If it has come to this down here, what can one expect on the surface?”
Another aspect of the short story which is not quite realistic and adds another source of amusement is Ivan Ivanych’s reaction to the discovery of this world below him. When he hears muffled sounds, Ivan ignores them with contempt, but even when he recognizes them as voices, he remains calm and simply begins to listen attentively. He does not question his sanity or think that maybe he is dreaming, he does not call out to see if someone is hiding behind a tombstone making a joke; he makes no noise, only moving to examine the nearest grave and check if the inscription matches the title of one of the speakers, which it does. This also helps the reader to accept the possibility of such a situation because Ivan acts so reasonably.
Dostoevsky understood how to masterfully walk the line between the real world and the imagined, a skill which Bobok exemplifies as a satire with a splash of the fantastical. He shows the ridiculousness of the mundane by transplanting it into an unexpected situation, making readers laugh but also prompting an examination of social norms. Few authors could take the premise of corpses waiting for the deterioration of their consciousness to catch up to that of their bodies and make it both funny and critical, but Dostoevsky’s use of magical realism and balance of realistic and implausible succeeds.